Oversight chief says Toyota withheld documents

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A key lawmaker on Friday leveled new accusations that Toyota Motor hid evidence regarding vehicle rollover cases.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, headed by Edolphus "Ed" Towns, D-N.Y., held a hearing this week on complaints of uncontrolled acceleration problems in Toyota (TM) cars. Toyota President Akio Toyoda testified.

As part of its investigation of Toyota's handling of safety defects and recalls, the committee had subpoenaed documents from former Toyota attorney Dimitrios Biller.

Biller has been engaged in litigation with Toyota for years. He alleges that the documents in question prove the automaker was aware of and hid safety defects in its vehicles and that he was unjustly terminated.

"We have reviewed these documents and found evidence that Toyota deliberately withheld relevant electronic records that it was legally required to produce in response to discovery orders in litigation," Towns wrote in a letter Friday to Toyota North America President Yoshimi Inaba. "Many of these documents concern 'rollover' cases in which the plaintiff was injured."

Among the documents, the letter said, was a memo sent by Biller in September 2005. In the memo, Biller reminded his supervisor of the need to turn over information from an internal Toyota database regarding known design flaws and countermeasures to deal with them. Such sharing of information is required by law as part of the "discovery" process in a lawsuit.

"Clearly, this information should have been produced in litigation before today." Biller wrote in the memo, as quoted in Towns' letter, "[Toyota] is clearly not producing all of the relevant information/documents in it possession." Finally, Mr. Biller concludes, "We need to start preserving, collecting and producing e-mails and electronic discovery."

Some information from this database was kept in secret "Books of Knowledge" maintained by the company, Biller asserts, according to the letter.

Biller's documents indicated that Toyota entered into multimillion-dollar settlements with plaintiffs whenever the plaintiff's attorneys seemed to be close to uncovering the "Books of Knowledge."

The documents also indicated that Toyota had long known about problems with unintended acceleration, according to Towns' letter.

"Toyota takes its legal obligations seriously and works to uphold the highest professional and ethical standards," Toyota has said previously regarding Biller. "Mr. Biller continues to make inaccurate and misleading allegations about Toyota's conduct. Toyota believes it acted appropriately with respect to product liability litigation."

Toyota spokespeople were not immediately able to respond directly to Rep. Towns' letter.

In a separate action, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it had purchased a Lexus ES350 once owned by Rhonda and Eddie Smith, a couple who testified at Wednesday's hearing regarding sudden acceleration.

Rhonda Smith said she experienced a frightening episode of unintended acceleration in the car in 2006, and that Toyota had failed to adequately respond to her complaints.

"The Smiths' former car is being taken to NHTSA's Vehicle Research & Test Center (VRTC) in East Liberty, OH, where it will be thoroughly studied," the auto safety agency said in its announcement. To top of page

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